As the official White House photographer, Pete Souza spent countless hours during eight years with President Barack Obama. He captured the famous Situation Room meeting in which Obama, surrounded by senior national security aides, monitored the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. And he caught the president in many lighter times as well, whether with children, friends, or family members. In all, Souza took nearly two million photos. Obama: An Intimate Portrait (Little, Brown, $50) reproduces 300 of the most representative ones, documenting consequential moments of decision and official action alongside numerous less scripted occasions. The result is an historic photographic record of a landmark presidency and an intimate portrait of a man who occupied America’s most powerful office.
Senator Al Franken has graduated from being a comedian-turnedsenator to a senator who deftly uses humor as a political tool. His funny and serious new book, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate (Twelve, $28), tells the story of his Minnesota roots, his 42-year marriage to his wife Franni, his journey from Saturday Night Live to a 312-vote U.S. Senate victory in 2008, and his hard-earned stripes as a member of Congress at a time of growing partisanship and public disillusionment about government. The end result is one of the most genuine and entertaining political memoirs to date. And as we look to 2020, let’s remember: Weirder things have happened in America than the election of a Jewish comedian to be president. Just sayin’.
In this detailed history of the libertarian movement, Nancy MacLean fully justifies the lurid image of her title. Democracy in Chains (Viking, $28) chronicles a century or more of efforts by the radical right not simply to influence “who rules” but to overturn “the rules” of American government and save the wealthy minority from the “exploitative majority.” MacLean, a Duke professor of history and public policy, starts this “utterly chilling story of the intellectual origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today” in 1956 in Charlottesville, Virginia. At that point James McGill Buchanan, the Nobel economist at the center of her account, was establishing the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy at the University of Virginia. One of a number of ostensibly academic institutes and think-tanks, most funded by libertarian billionaires, the Center discouraged any open discussion of ideas and concentrated exclusively on turning “libertarian creed into a national counterrevolution.” MacLean tracks several campaigns that, while falling short of the ultimate goal, have nonetheless eroded trust in government institutions and have changed the way politics is done. Resisting the Brown decision, for instance, the state of Virginia pressed hard for the privatization of schools; one county closed its public schools for several years rather than comply with the order to integrate. But by reframing an issue of race as an issue of freedom of choice, the right opened a wider discussion of the government’s role in schools, and MacLean shows how libertarians have employed this “stealth” strategy with increasing success through the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Her closely-argued and passionate study loops back to John C. Calhoun and the Gilded Age for the seeds of Buchanan’s public choice theory, then shows, with the Flint water crisis, climate change denial, Scott Walker’s anti-union measures, increasing privatization of prisons, the anti-Obamacare movement, and much more, how effectively they’ve been sown.